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Here's something that puzzles me. At the start of the third crusade, Richard I sailed to the holy land around Europe, through the strait of Gibraltar and across the Mediterranean.

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At the time, the south of the Iberian peninsula was under the control of the Almohad caliphate. I'm sure the 14km of strait was under heavy shipping traffic. And I think Saladin was aware of what was coming.

So did the Almohad empire not try to stop them, or was the strait simply too big to control in that way? Could Richard's whole Armada simply sail through unchallenged? I don't know what the relationship was between the Almohad and the Ayyubid dynasty, but presumably, they'd prefer other Muslims to a bunch of Christians.

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@FelixGoldberg, thanks. I just mean that there'd be a lot of boats going back and forth, so even if it was impossible to close the strait absolutely by military means, it still seems like a ballsy move to go ahead and just sail your Christian armada through. –  Peter Apr 24 '14 at 10:34
I think the Almohads and Portugese/Spanish weren't too friendly, so the bit of the Iberian peninsula that was in Almohad hands would be dependent on ships sailing the strait. I doubt that part was self-sufficient with such a massive front to keep defended and even if they were, it wouldn't be much of an empire if that part was totally cut off :) –  Peter Apr 24 '14 at 13:16
@FelixGoldberg Sure, the New World hadn't been discovered yet but so what? Anyone who wanted to get from the Mediterranean to northern Europe would have to either go overland or pass through the Strait. –  David Richerby Apr 24 '14 at 16:02
What research have you done to support what I see as several completely unwarranted assumptions? –  Pieter Geerkens Apr 25 '14 at 0:44
@PieterGeerkens Me? I googled a bit :) I'm no historian, just an interested layman. I think I qualify any assertion I make with "I figure" and "it seems". The whole point of this question is that I'd like to be shown which of my assumptions are incorrect, since they lead to a contradiction. –  Peter Apr 25 '14 at 9:30

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The groundwork that allowed the use of the strait by the crusaders began much earlier than 1190, and has as much to do with other political and military developments around the Iberian peninsula than anything else. The Almohadin fleet had been for centuries a dominant force in the region, and has essentially controlled access to the Mediterranean for 400 years1. These were not by any stretch of the imagination "scrubby Arab lateens". In fact, the Muslim navies were among the first to move from coastal attacks to the open sea and were at the forefront of naval technology of the period. One naval historian writes,

This may have also encouraged the construction of bigger ships that began to appear from the late 9th century onwards. By the 12th century some vessels from Andalus could virtually barge their way through an attempted Norman blockade of an Islamic port.2

He continues to note that these ships likely formed the basis for the later Italian and later Portuguese carracks3, and influenced European naval technology much in a way similar to architectural technology. By contrast, the dominance of the Muslims over the strait had a direct effect on the long term strategy and tactics of the crusades. It was known much earlier in the history of the crusades that controlling coastal access was crucial when fleets were mainly tied to the coast4, and this steered long term strategies in the Iberian - including the capture of Silves in 1188 (and a couple decades later the campaign to seize Gibraltar itself). Silves was one of the main nautical centers of the Moors in the Iberian, and its loss had far reaching effects even beyond the crusades, jump-starting Portuguese naval development5. It was this groundwork (along with the hard learned recognition of the need for maritime logistical support) that allowed the Richard to consider sending a large fleet through the strait.

The other piece of the puzzle is situation of of the Almohads at the time. As other posters point out, at the time of the third crusade they were basically fighting several wars at the same time. There was the ongoing conflict with the Portuguese and Spanish in Iberia, they were at war with Saladin, and by 1180 they were in enough of a decline that their power over the strait had been severely curtailed.

We must remember that by 1180 the Almohadin, a true medieval naval superpower, were fighting on three fronts: It was not a winnable war. Everyone wanted the Strait. Specifically, the former Taifa Kingdom-City of Silves gave the Crusaders a direct approach to the Atlantic Straits and, in conjunction with the Anglo/Italian-held Tortosa as an exit, and with Sicilian suppression of the Barbary coast from the direction of Tunisia, having Atlantic Silves allowed the Crusaders direct transit not only through the Straits but through the very heart of the Almohad Empire.6

So if "Richard was a lot more afraid of storms", it was because control of the strait by the Almohadin had been compromised by 1190. They neither had the inclination nor available military capacity to attempt to stop Richard's fleet.

Note: Just an aside, Richard didn't actually sail with the fleet through the Strait - he marched overland from Vézelay with the intention of meeting them in Marseille. Due to a drunken pillaging of Lisbon that resulted in a 3 week delay, Richard had already left without them on hired ships.7

1Truver, Scott. The Strait of Gibraltar And the Mediterranean, p 162
2Nicolle, David. The Moors: The Islamic West 7th-15th Centuries AD, p 19
3Ibid, p 20
4France, John. "The First Crusade as Naval Enterprise", The Mariner's Mirror Nov 1997, p 392
5Nicolle, David. The Third Crusade 1191: Richard the Lionheart, Saladin and the Struggle for Jerusalem, p 42
6Cushing, Dana. The Qadi of Xelb in the Third Crusade (Silves 1189), p 3
7Gillingham, John, Richard I, p 129-30

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Thank you. A very nicely composed and referenced answer. I'm just curious who the Almohads would have seen as the lesser of two evils. I conjectured in the answer that they would have preferred Saladin as the lesser of two evils (since he was at least Muslim) but perhaps that only emphasized their difference, and the Christians were seen as a more alien and barbaric force, and therefore somehow less objectionable. –  Peter May 1 '14 at 14:47
@Peter - Muslim states weren't as united by the idea of religious conquest as the crusaders. I've always seen the expansion into Andalusia as much more "secular invasion" from the Almohad standpoint. The Almohads were actively engaged with the "European crusaders" trying to retake the Iberian, so that would be the prime focus. If they knew Richard's destination it would have certainly been the lesser of 2 evils - enemy of my enemy, etc. Saladin threatened them from the east, so why not let them weaken each other? They really weren't in a position to do anything but look out for themselves. –  Comintern May 1 '14 at 23:53
Interesting! I knew it was never as simple as backward Arabs :) Regarding the conquest of Silves, I'm not familiar about the naval tactics or sailing in general, but how did that help the sailing of the Strait of Gibraltar? Looking at the map, looks like the Northern Iberia were already at Christian hands anyway, so what were the big difference between Lisbon and Silves? –  Louis Rhys May 3 '14 at 18:38

Saladin was actually at war with the Almohads. The latter were probably pleased to see the crusaders arrive on the scene.

There is a good article on this by A. Baadj in "Al-Qanṭara", 2013, pp. 276-295. A pdf is available on "Google Scholar".

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Not sure why people are voting for this. Maybe they don't understand that Saladin's army was located in the Middle East and based in Egypt, not in Spain. –  Tyler Durden May 1 '14 at 20:39
Do have a look at Baadj's article. The fighting took place in North Africa. –  fdb May 1 '14 at 21:55

At this point in history the Northern European galleys were much faster and seaworthy than anything the Arabs were building. Also, in arms the Northern Europeans had caught up with the Arabs, and exceeded them by far in the quality of shields and armor. Richard's knights were fully armored in steel while the typical Spanish arab was wearing cloth robes and a wooden shield. By the time of the third crusade (1189-1192), the Spanish Arabs were no match for Richard's fleet, which was large and well equipped. Even one hundred years earlier in the time of El Cid, a half-Christian, half-Moorish warrior Northern European technology was being used to basically kick Arab butt in southern Spain; and Richard was on a whole different level than El Cid. Richard was a lot more afraid of storms than of any scrubby Arab lateens.

When Richard got to Cyprus, he completely destroyed them, and the Cypriot arab forces were much more advanced than anything in the Moorish caliphate. The Cypriots, in fact, managed to bust up a couple of galleys before they got owned, which is way more than the Moors could have done. You have to remember that French galleys in those days were very fast. Just simply catching sight of them would have a challenge for the Moors forget about stopping and engaging them.

Norman Galley ready to kick ass

11th-century Norman, clinker built galley, with viking rudder and sail, loaded with fully-armored knights ready to kick ass.

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Cool! Nice answer. Just a bit confused about the dates. Richard's was the third crusade, right? Which would be around 1190, around the time of Saladin. Were the Arabs still this far behind? –  Peter Apr 24 '14 at 15:18
-1 for now, alas. I have doubts about this answer. The assertions are too categorical and sweeping ("scrubby lateens"?). @Comintern's answer seems to be more correct, especially as it supplies references for its assertions. Here's a quick question: if Richard's technology was so superior to the Arabs' technology - why didn't he kick their ass? Why did he essentially fail in his Crusade? Why did he not enter Jerusalem in force but only as a pilgrim, by amicable agreement with Saladin? I submit to you that the technology was about the same in practice. –  Felix Goldberg May 1 '14 at 7:24
I agree with Felix. Sorry to take the answer points away, but @Comitern's answer is very well researched. I'm still curious about the relative technological power. Even though Richard failed to capture Jerusalem, he did take Acre and Jaffa quite easily. Their failure to take Jerusalem seems more to do with bad luck and squabbling among the Crusader leaders than with technology. Apparently there were times when the Crusaders could have taken Jerusalem with minor effort, and only bad weather held them back. –  Peter May 1 '14 at 14:36
@TylerDurden I'm no historian, so I can't judge answers on that basis, but right now I'm getting the following cues: Comitern uses extensive references and quotes to back up his claims and he refers to explicit historical details and examples. Your first response to questions is an ad hominem attack and a repeat of your answer. Note that you're not just saying that Comitern doesn't know what he's talking about, you're saying that David Nicolle (ref 2) doesn't know what he's talking about, since the first quote explicitly contradicts you. –  Peter May 1 '14 at 15:18
Silves was captured by crusaders in 1189 and fell due to siege by land (see Cushing above). He notes that ships may have been trapped in harbor due to low water levels when the city fell. As far as the Nicolle citation, it can be previewed at the Google Books link above for more context. @Peter - The answers above are in regard to the Almohad fleet, not Saladin's - Acre and Jaffa were not fought against the Almohad fleet and weren't easy. I'll edit above with some more information about the naval blockades in the eastern Med. at risk of going beyond the scope of the original question. –  Comintern May 1 '14 at 23:33

Excellent article explaining the timeline, each crusade and the complex relationship between Saladin and the Berberic Empire:

The crusades were a series of holy wars called by popes with the promise of indulgences for those who fought in them and directed against external and internal enemies of Christendom for the recovery of Christian property or in defense of the Church or Christian people.

Where were crusades fought? This is a matter of dispute among historians. “Traditionalists” would limit true crusades to expeditions aimed at recovering or protecting Jerusalem.

When were the crusades? The first crusade was launched by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095. There is controversy over the last crusade. “Traditionalists” would end the crusades in 1291 with the fall of the last crusader castle of the Latin Kingdom, the city of Acre (on the northern coast of present-day Israel

Economic Backdrop

c.950-1300 Period of steady demographic and economic growth in Western Europe. The population of Europe (excluding Russia) more than doubled, growing from about 30 million people in A.D. 1000 to about 70-80 million in 1250


  1. 753 Pope Stephen II tells the Carolingian ruler of the Franks Pepin the Short that St. Peter will remit sins of those who fight for his Church. This is directed against the Lombards who threatened the pope’s control over Rome and the “Papal State.”
  2. 852 A Saracen fleet of 73 ships landed at Ostia, and raided inland, sacking Rome. In doing so, they burnt the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul. The new pope Leo IV (r.847-855) ordered Rome’s walls to be rebuilt and refurbished, and had them extended to protect the Vatican hill. He also formed a naval alliance with the cities of Amalfi, Naples, and Gaeta, which drove off a Saracen fleet in 849. Three years later Pope Leo IV issued a call to the Franks, declaring "Whoever meets death steadfastly in this fight [against Moslem raiders of Italy] the Heavenly Kingdom will not be closed to him." This becomes a much quoted text among canonists of the High Middle Ages.
  3. 1095 Council of Clermont. The First Crusade is initiated when Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus requests help in reconquering from the Seljuk Turks the lost territory of Asia Minor. Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont calls upon the princes of Christendom for an armed “pilgrimage” to recover Jerusalem from the Muslims. Among his goals is the strengthening of the Gregorian papacy by bringing the Greek Orthodox Church under papal authority. The response is dramatic with two waves of “crusaders” answering the Pope’s call. War continues between Pope Urban II and the German Emperor Henry IV, who is forced to flee Italy. (Miniature of Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont.) 1096 1099: Phases and major events of the First Crusade.
  4. 1096: People’s Crusade. About 20,000 lesser nobles and peasants from northern France and Germany, led in part by Peter the Hermit and Walter Sansavoir. Peasants massacred Jews of Rhineland along the way. Many of the crusaders were killed by Hungarians in retaliation for their looting of the countryside.
  5. 1096 1099: Princes' Crusade. Force of about 50-60,000 (including noncombatants), of which about 7,000 were knights. Results: Jerusalem taken and Crusader States established. 1099 The crusaders of the First Crusade, numbering now around 20,000, capture Jerusalem, massacring its inhabitants (Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike). The Crusaders divide their new territories into four principalities. Godfrey of Bouillon is named “defender of the Holy Sepulcher” and ruler of Jerusalem.
  6. 1101-1102: the Crusade of the Faint-hearted (coda to the First Crusade). Pope Paschal II, taking up where his predecessor Pope Urban II left off, preached another crusade to aid the fledgling Kingdom of Jerusalem.
  7. 1146 1174 Nur al Din, Turkish ruler of Mosul and Aleppo, unites Moslem Syria under his rule. Reintroduces idea of Jihad. Coin of Nur al-Din
  8. 1147-1148 Second Crusade called by Pope Eugene II,
  9. 1169 Kurdish general Saladin (r. 1169-1193) rules Egypt in the name of Nur-al-Din but establishes an independent sultanate. (Portrait of Saladin.)
  10. 1170 Almohad dynasty establishes Seville as its capital. Between 1130 and 1170, the Almohads, a Berber family from Morocco who promoted a puritanical and fundamentalist brand of Islam, ousts Almoravid rulers of north Africa and Spain. Out of reforming zeal initially oppress Spanish Jews and Christians who take refuge in Christian Portugal, Aragon, and Castile.
  11. In 1195 the Almohads defeated King Alfronso VIII of Castile in the Battle of Alarcos, temporarily halting the Reconquista, but the Christians recover and in 1212 a Christian coalition from Leon/Castile, Navarra, and Aragon defeat the Almohads in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. With this, the Almohads were forced back to Africa. Almohads rule in Morocco comes to an end 1269.
  12. 1187 The entire army of the kingdom of Jerusalem is wiped out by the sultan of Egypt Saladin (1137-1193) in the battle of Hattin. The king of Jerusalem Guy of Lusignan is taken prisoner and the True Cross is captured. In the months following Hattin, Saladin conquers all the cities of the Kingdom of Jerusalem south of Tyre, including Jerusalem itself. News of the fall of Jerusalem leads to the pope calling for the Third Crusade. The call will be answered by the German Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, French King Philip Augustus and English King Richard the Lionheart.
  13. 1188 Saladin Tithe. Upon hearing of the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, King Henry II of England and King Philip Augustus of France both took the Cross and vowed to liberate the Holy City. To raise money for the expedition, they devised what might be the first national income tax. The Saladin Tithe was, as its name implies, a tax of a tenth of the value of all moveable properties and revenues upon all those not going on crusade.
  14. 1189-1192 Third Crusade: Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin. 1190 Massacre of the Jews of York. Richard the Lionheart’s preparations for going on crusade entailed demanding money from the Jews, who were officially serfs of the Crown. Jewish moneylenders, in turn, raised the required money by calling in debts. This exacerbated the Christian hostility toward the Jews which had already been stirred up by crusading fervor. In 1189-1190 there were a series of attacks upon Jewish communities across England, including the massacre of thirty Jews who tried to bring gifts to Richard during his coronation at Westminster by a mob responding to a (false) rumor that the new king had ordered the extermination of the Jews. The new king responded by having the ringleaders hanged. The most notorious event was the massacre of the Jewish community of York
  15. 1191-1192 Richard the Lionheart leads the Third Crusade.
  16. 1203-1204 Fourth Crusade: Innocent III calls for a crusade to liberate Jerusalem. …and there are many more crusades
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Perhaps a little formatting could be supplied, to eliminate the wall of text appearance? –  Pieter Geerkens Apr 30 '14 at 1:20
just did it.../ –  edn13 Apr 30 '14 at 1:32
2. 852 A Saracen fleet of 73 ships landed at Ostia ... drove off a Saracen fleet in 849. Are these dates correct? If so, the text is unclear. –  andy256 Apr 30 '14 at 3:47
the information comes from the URL i mentioned earlier. I guess going to the Medieval Literature and Civilization: Studies in Memory of G. N. Garmonsway would be best (chapter on Saracens and Crusaders: From Fact to Allegory would be best, but I do not have access to it –  edn13 Apr 30 '14 at 14:52
@edn13 You didn't have to post a different answer, you could have just edited your original answer. I've added the link to your source here, please delete the other answer. –  Yannis May 1 '14 at 17:36

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